Julian Priester recently sat in front of a small crowd at the brick-walled Vermillion Bar on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, microphone in one hand and his 1977 Polarization LP in the other.
“Let’s listen to this first and then talk about it,” he said, and the sound of the two trombones combined to form mournful melodies that played from the speakers behind him.
When the first composition of the album was finished, he began to speak, often pausing to find the perfect words. “You can be more than you are,” he said, referring to playing music with recording yourself. “Eliminate criticism. You can’t do anything wrong, ”he suggested as a grain of musical wisdom. And he recalled moments from the history of jazz – a genre he helped define as the trombonist for Dina Washington, Sun Ra, Max Roach, Herbie Hancock, Duke Ellington and many more.
Since late October, the 86-year-old trombonist and long-time retired member of the Cornwall College of Art School of Music has been hosting free audition and storytelling sessions at Vermillion every Wednesday at 5pm (two of Seattle’s top jazz musicians start at 7:30 pm). The events are the first live performances hosted by the Seattle Jazz Fellowship, an organization formed in the spring to support the Seattle jazz community by putting on shows and building relationships between mentors and students. After a distinguished career as a musician and educator, Prister is now involved in teaching people the art of listening, which forms the basis of his musical philosophy.
When jazz trumpeter Thomas Marriott founded the community this spring, listening to music regularly was one of its top priorities.
“The idea was to get people in a room to listen to the tapes, because that’s how the music is taught,” he says.
Because Priest’s music makes up “a large chunk of recorded music history,” Marriott says it was an obvious decision to ask him to teach and be a permanent artist in the community. One of the partnership’s missions is to support jazz veterans like Prister — he doesn’t need to rush at this point in his career, says Marriott. Thus, the scholarship gave Priest a “subscription fee” and now pays him weekly for listening sessions and intends to do so for any other services (eg concerts) he would like to provide in the future. Marriott says the idea is to financially support any art project that Prister wants to do. After all, Marriott hopes to have audition sessions five or six days a week.
Priest got his start by supporting blues legends like Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley while he was in high school in Chicago. In the 1950s, he played in the Sun Ra big band and with jazz legends such as Lionel Hampton, Dina Washington, Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach. He also released a couple of albums as the band’s leader.
During this time, Prister made a name for himself as one of the few trombonists who could keep up with Roach’s fast drumming while blowing fast chord changes in style. But even though he can play fast, Prister says he has always preferred to play slowly – taking the time to listen and improvise beautiful tunes that evoke emotion.
“I want to touch this person,” says Prister, pressing his hand to his heart. “I want to get them emotionally excited.”
Priester’s musical philosophy is evident in his improvisation, as in the introduction to Polarization. The notes do not seem to be imposed on the world. Instead, each sound matches what it used to be, making Priest’s improvisation so melodic that one could believe it was composed. Marriott says this melody is fundamental to the Priester sound.
Prister talks about how he wants people to recognize and respect the miracle of improvised jazz music, which he wants to rename “spontaneous composition,” a phrase he thinks best reflects the skill associated with solo performance. But at the same time, he believes that good music is born of humility.
As a member of the Cornwall School of Music, Prister told his students: “You don’t have to be in constant control of the situation. In fact, calm your ego and just react to what is there. What do you hear? ”
Seattle-based jazz musician Steve Moore, who studied trombone with Priest for many years, says he learned “a reverence for sound and hearing.”
Moore recalls how Prister took the stage in Cornwall in front of a crowd and sat with his eyes closed for five minutes. When he finally started playing, it sounded like the stage lights buzzing – a sound that most people would ignore.
“Nurturing that sensitivity is what Julian brings to music education,” says Moore.
Priester says that in addition to teaching the value of listening, he wants to advocate the importance of music as a tool for emotional healing.
In May, he lost his 45-year-old wife, Jamie “Nashira” Priest, and he says that while there is “a big blank space” in his heart, music has helped him cope.
“It distracts me. It fills my head, my body, my heart, so I pick up the horn every day, ”says Prister. “I don’t know what I would do without music as a healer.”
The pandemic has suspended Priester’s regular performances. And he’s working on releasing an album that was delayed by the bankruptcy of a production company – recorded with the same band as his 2002 album “In Deep End Dance”: Dawn Clement, piano; Byron Vannoy, drums; and Jeff Harper, bass.
But Priester still trains for an hour or two every day, trying to keep his punches sharp in case he can perform again.
“I want to continue giving music to everyone who wants to listen,” he says.